Lack Of Child Care Stalls Economic Recovery

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Education , Economic development

CHATHAM — There are many workers on Cape Cod who are ready to return to their jobs, but can’t do so because of the lack of child care. State rules designed to limit the spread of COVID-19 have hobbled preschools, day care centers and summer recreation programs, and those that do open will have very limited enrollment.

On Saturday Night, Theresa Malone of Monomoy Community Services learned that their request to operate this summer has been approved by state regulators. The session begins on Monday, July 6, and the 20 spaces for children were all claimed weeks ago.

“It will be a modified version of what we do in the summer, minus van transport, minus what you would call field trips,” she said. The MCS facility on Depot Road will handle 10 children on each of the two levels of the building, with separate staff on each level. “The two groups can’t even interact within the building,” Malone said. Youngsters will need to wear masks when in extended, close contact with one another, as when playing board games, but won’t need to wear them all day. MCS has purchased gaiter masks for students, and hopes to install a tented awning behind the building to create more outdoor classroom space.

“The costs, just to set it up, are extraordinary,” Malone said. And with the increased need for staffing and fewer students, this summer’s program will be extremely expensive to operate. “We’re going to lose thousands of dollars on this,” she said. MCS is dipping heavily into a fund it had hoped to use for building improvements. “But if this isn’t an emergency, I don’t know what is,” she said.

The lack of child care has emerged as a top issue for the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force, said State Sen. Julian Cyr, D–Truro. As of last week, only 19 child care providers were authorized by state officials to reopen soon. This week, the YMCA of Cape Cod announced the resumption of most of its summer child care programs, including the Harwich Elementary School Early Education Center and the Harwich YMCA camps, both of which opened Monday. One day earlier, the YMCA ceased the state-subsidized emergency childcare it has been providing to health care and other essential workers during the pandemic.

But most private child care providers lack the space needed to meet state requirements for safe social distancing. Cindy Horgan of the Cape Cod Children’s Place in Eastham said the burden on small providers is a heavy one. A center that usually requires 24 children in a classroom “in order to just make their payroll, is now being required to have just 10 children,” she said. Teachers, used to collaborating throughout the day, won’t be able to do so for fear of cross-contaminating groups of children. That means that even short bathroom breaks will be a challenge.

“We have lost six of our teachers, four of which had their own families’ needs that weren’t being met,” Horgan said. Those teachers used to have their own children attend town recreation programs during the summer so they could go to work at Cape Cod Children’s Place, but with those programs canceled, they need to stay home to watch their children.

Last month, The Children's Center in Harwich announced that it would not open this summer due to the costs of meeting safety requirements. Nationally, 60 percent of child care providers are closed because of COVID-19, said State Rep. Sarah Peake, D–Provincetown. “All have seen a loss in revenue, and many on the Cape have made the decision that they are not reopening this summer. And without state and federal assistance, they might not ever reopen,” she said. Locally, the pandemic has worsened a child care need that was already acute, Peake said. Many local residents can’t go back to their jobs “because they have kids at home and they can’t leave those kids alone,” she said.

Peake said she believes towns have an opportunity to take action to ease the problem. Wellfleet has set up a child care center at its elementary school and is using a voucher program to help participants pay. Provincetown has taken a similar step, she said. The pandemic has made clear the connection between economic development and early childhood education, she noted. “We can’t look at these two items in silos,” she said.

Malone said there’s a clear need for more government funding for child care, along with practical assistance with things like obtaining cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. This summer’s program at MCS is innovative, but it could be completely shut down if a single child or teacher or family member is exposed to the coronavirus or tests positive, she said. But even if the program shuts down five days after it opens, it will be worth trying.

“It’s very exciting, it’s very frustrating, and I think it’s very important that we do it,” she said. With so few other places offering child care now, “if we can show a very realistic model of how you can or can’t do it, I think it will be very valuable to the whole childcare community,” Malone said.